Meet MSW Students and Social Entrepreneurs Adina Lichtman and Terrance Coffie
Adina Lichtman and Terrance Coffie, both of whom earned their BS from NYU Silver in May 2016 and will graduate from the School’s Advanced Standing MSW program in May 2017, are social entrepreneurs. As an NYU sophomore in November 2014, Adina established Knock Knock Give a Sock, a non-profit organization that facilitates the collection and distribution of socks to people experiencing homelessness. The following year, in partnership with Terrance, she began organizing periodic “Meet Your Neighbor” dinners to bring together people who are experiencing homelessness with those who are not in order to foster discussion and reduce the stigma associated with homelessness. Adina and Terrance recently sat down with NYU Silver’s Office of Communications to talk about their efforts.
HOW DID YOU START KNOCK KNOCK GIVE A SOCK?
I had been giving out sandwiches to people experiencing homelessness as the Community Service Chair for the Bronfman Center campus when one of the men I gave a sandwich to said what he and other homeless people could really use are socks. I went to my dorm room to get a pair and decided to knock on every door on my floor and ask each person to donate a pair of socks as well. In about 15 minutes I had over 40 pairs. I recruited other NYU students to help out and now, a little over two years later, Knock Knock Give a Sock is on over 20 college campuses, it is in companies too, and it has distributed around 100,000 pairs of socks to people living on the street.
WHERE DID THE IDEA OF THE MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR DINNERS COME FROM?
A couple of years ago, I was invited to an event in Washington, DC for Jewish students who had started organizations on their campuses. In one session, we were asked, “if you could do anything with your organization’s brand, the wildest thing you can think of, what would you do?” I said I would love to bring together students with people who are homeless to have dinner side by side. The woman running the session looked at me and said, “That’s not crazy. You can do that.”
The idea came from the realization that as college students on a liberal campus, we are sensitive to many different communities and are often very sensitive about the language we use, but not when it comes to people who are homeless. Fellow students would ask me “Aren’t they all drug addicts? Aren’t they all lazy? Why aren’t they working?” I was getting these questions all the time. It occurred to me that students involved in Knock Knock Give a Sock were meeting their neighbors where they live but they were not meeting their neighbors on the streets or in the nearby shelters. I sold the dinners as “meet you neighbors while meeting the needs of others.”
HOW DID TERRANCE GET INVOLVED?
Adina and I were in a class together. She learned that in addition to going to school, I was employed at the Doe Fund, which has a transitional housing program for formerly incarcerated and formerly homeless men, so she shared her idea of the dinners with me. For me it was important because she wanted to challenge the stigma of homelessness, this idea of what a homeless person is. That is how Adina and I began our collaboration.
At the Doe Fund, where I was a client before I came to NYU, I worked with young men who had aged out of foster care or were coming home from prison and found themselves in a state of homelessness because they had no other place to go. Adina is right that there was a perception that these guys were drug addicts and didn’t want to work, etc. But the young men I worked with were going to work and they were trying to reestablish themselves, and they were trying to get into college. So I appreciated that Adina was saying, “I want you to meet these people for who they are in this space and not the idea or the stereotypes that society has laid on them.”
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT SETTING UP YOUR FIRST MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR DINNER?
It was a battle! I went to a lot of different people and places to see if they would be interested in funding a dinner between students and clients from the Doe Fund but I was met with a lot of resistance. A lot of people thought what I was planning to do would be exploitative and they dissuaded me from doing it. They were concerned that people experiencing homelessness were going to be asked questions that would make them uncomfortable. I thought they just did not see what I was seeing and I was determined to move ahead.
Then my supervisor at the women’s homeless shelter where I was doing my field placement at the time said something that reinforced my resolve. I was working with my first client and I explained there were questions I didn’t want to ask her because I didn’t want to be offensive. My supervisor said, “What our clients have been through is unimaginable. A question might come across as offensive but just remember that you are doing this in order to help and what you ask out of general curiosity or to help and learn is not going to hurt them more than what they have already been through.”
The real turning point for me was in the fall of 2015 when we started to plan the first dinner with the Silver School Graduate School Association and there were still people who didn’t understand what we were trying to do. After one particularly difficult meeting Terrance said to me “I see the vision that you have, we have the same vision, and we’re going to make this happen.” To not have the vision alone anymore changed everything.
From my own life, I knew that the questions asked could be no more harmful than what society had already done to the individuals that had created their circumstances. For me that was important. In our effort to help, we were meeting resistance regarding the harm that could be done but we were not looking at the harm that society had caused in the first place. A lot of times we talk about these issues without talking to those affected by them. The guys I worked with had no problem discussing their experience, they wanted people to know what happened to them. It was not a matter of exploitation for them, it was a matter of being heard and being seen as human beings. It was very beneficial for them to connect with other people who were interested in their lives and they were just as interested in the people across the table.
The questions go both ways. At one dinner, a woman from FACES NY, a non-profit that provides supportive housing and other services to people living with HIV/AIDS and their families, spoke about how hard it is for her family to put food on their table and put clothes on their backs, and how when she goes outside she feels scared on the street. She asked, “How come your community is so different than mine? What is going on here?” And that question led to such an important conversation.
In social work school we have the privilege of talking about privilege. The people we are bringing to the dinners do not have the same framework in terms of the conversations we have in class and so the issues come up more organically.
They are the same fundamental discussions we have in Diversity, Race, Oppression and Privilege class but without the structure of what we learn here academically. We begin to see these things through our own eyes and our own experiences in these moments. That is what has made the dinners so successful.
HOW MANY DINNERS HAVE YOU HELD SO FAR AND HOW OFTEN DO YOU DO THEM?
We have held four dinners over the past year and half. We do not have a set schedule. Whenever we identify a company, organization or community that is willing to fund a dinner, we get to work to make it happen. It takes about six weeks to put one together. The sponsoring organization brings their members or employees and our partners at the Doe Fund, FACES NY and Susan’s Place women’s shelter bring participants from their programs.
HAS YOUR EDUCATION AT THE SILVER SCHOOL INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU APPROACH THESE DINNERS?
I would absolutely say yes. One of the things we do at the dinners is we tell participants they cannot sit with people they know. We take from our studies the idea of changing the dynamics so that the dinners create an atmosphere of diversity.
One of the things that happens at the end of the dinners is that participants find they have much more in common than they do differences. That happens every time. You might think people from such different circumstances would have nothing in common but by the end of the dinner you see smiles and this connection between these people because they have identified some of the same struggles they go through just by being human.
At the last place we had a dinner they had to kick us out. People were still talking in the hallway and the management said, “no, really, you need to exit.”
No one wants to leave because they become immersed with each other as people.
AS YOUR EDUCATION HAS PROGRESSED, HAVE YOU LEARNED NEW THINGS THAT HAVE HELPED YOU IN THIS EFFORT?
As I have continued to pay attention to what has been going on at these dinners and in my classes and in my education, I think that there is so much that I have learned in terms of the system, the policies and the history that cause certain people to be homeless. All that I have learned and read – like The New Jim Crow – has helped me understand why things are the way they are and enabled me to express that as I talk about these Meet Your Neighbor dinners with various communities.
I agree with Adina. For me, policy is what I focus on and policy class is where my own enlightenment began. I came to understand societal conditioning and the policies and frameworks that create our environments. It was my introduction to where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. Now when I think about Mass Incarceration or think about homelessness, I see the policies that create and perpetuate them.
WHICH NYU SILVER FACULTY HAVE BEEN MOST INFLUENTIAL TO YOU BOTH?
There have been a lot. Dr. Robert Hawkins is one of them. He has spoken as a guest lecturer in a number of my classes and he was the first professor to know what I was doing [with Knock Knock Give a Sock]. He is someone from the beginning who was constantly giving me the green light, so he has been a huge component of the work that I have done. Even with the dinners, where I met with resistance, he said, “I think it’s a great idea and you have just got to keep going.” Dr. Dina Rosenfeld is another. She is my faculty advisor.
Like Adina, for me Dr. Hawkins from the beginning has been one of those individuals who has been so instrumental in pushing me forward. Dr. Mara Gottlieb has also been a great help. She brings to my life and my academic experience a passion that goes beyond the classroom. Any time I knock on her door, she’s there, and that ties directly back to our lessons about the importance of a supportive network. It is important not just for our clients to succeed but also for us as students and professionals.